- Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915–1945 by Weihong Bao
At the core of Weihong Bao’s Fiery Cinema is the question of “what constitutes the medium of cinema?” (p. 2). By way of the recurrent trope of fire, Bao enframes, deframes, and reframes early Chinese cinema amid China’s experiences of war between 1915 and 1945 as an affective medium, a fiery cinema, and a technology that was already conceiving its own future reincarnations. Bao argues that the study of the emergence of China’s affective medium allows us to rethink the intersections between social and media politics and the “politics of medium specificity and intermediality” (p. 5). Affective medium is a concept coined by Bao to reconceptualize Chinese cinema not merely as a singular or finite medium and object, or a “vehicle of information transmission” (p. 8), but rather as a “mediating environment.” As such, China’s affective medium as a “supramedium” “is not limited to any particular set of media technology, material support, operational procedure, or aesthetic codes” (p. 27). Structured into the three modes of affective spectatorship or dispositifs—“Resonance,” which covers the interwar period between 1915 and 1931; “Transparency,” which examines the left-wing cinema between 1929 and 1937; and “Agitation,” which examines the agitational cinema during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) (p. 30)—Fiery Cinema successfully situates early Chinese cinema within the larger “context of mass media, problematizing a technologically determined teleology” (p. 29). Bao uses dispositifs and affect as critical lens to retrace a genealogy of wartime Chinese cinema that transcends the geopolitics of the production context, the discourse of perception and reception, and the determinism of the cinematic technology. [End Page 138]
The first part of the book, “Resonance,” examines the emergence of the martial arts film and the relationship between the spectator’s and actor’s bodies, intermediality, and nationalist politics. It contributes to the core question of the book on what constitutes cinema by positing a methodology that is “beyond a sociological or an ontological model” (p. 149). In chapter 1, “Fiery Action,” Bao examines the discourse of new heroism prevalent in martial arts film (p. 41). During the interwar period, when huoshao pian (fiery films), a subgenre of martial arts film, became popular, Bao noted that it was a time when various old and new domestic and foreign cultural forms interacted with each other in China. There was cross-fertilization among imported American film serials along with China new drama and reformed Beijing opera. Bao posits a new understanding of early Chinese cinema that takes into account the “intermediated encounter” (p. 41) between stage and screen, production and reception. Indeed, she “challenges the predominant understanding of an ‘internal’ one-way traffic from Chinese stage to screen” (p. 48). It follows that action films and the discourse of new heroism circulating at the time as it relates to the potential of the human body as technologized body both evidenced and can allegorically resolve “nationalist anxiety of citizenship in a semicolonial condition and in the unequal exchange of global image circulation” (p. 75).
Chapter 2 continues with the discussion of intermedial spectatorship, providing a methodological solution to the study of “lost cinema,” due to the reality that many films from that era have not survived. By moving beyond the purview of early Chinese cinema as merely the object of the celluloid medium, to encompass the experience of sensory perception, and the technologized body, Bao successfully situates Chinese cinema and the dispositif of spectatorial resonance within the larger context of various discourses of body and perception, including biology, physics, hypnotism, and wireless technology. Early Chinese cinema therefore, according to Bao, emerged at the intersection and “collaboration across ostensibly incompatible fields in the invention of not only the technological medium but also the human body as the ultimate, malleable medium of perceptions” (p. 111). This new conception of the relationship between cinema, perception, and spectatorship had an impact on our...